Dance of Discovery

The College of Fine Arts became a way to reconnect to roots

“If it wasn’t for dance, I would not be in college,” Mario Alberto Ramirez says matter-of-factly.

As a first-generation American and one of the few people in his family to pursue formal education after middle school, “college was a very out-there idea,” he says.

But a scheduling mix-up in middle school was the start to a series of discoveries that changed everything. In eighth grade, Ramirez was randomly placed in a dance class. He continued to take courses in dance through high school, “and I developed a great family and community in this art form.” He became involved in his local Aztec dance community and, in his words, “reconnected with my roots and learned more about my indigenous identity.”

As senior year came around, Ramirez’ school and dance communities encouraged him to study dance in college. “I didn’t know where to go or what to do,” he says. So his dance mentor bought him a bus ticket to Austin to audition with the College of Fine Arts. Ramirez received his final encouragement from his mother, who had left home at 12 to work. “She said that if she did that at 12, I could do this,” he remembers.

Now a junior dance major in the College of Fine Arts, Ramirez has traveled even further than the distance between Dallas and Austin. He serves as co-director of the campus Native American and Indigenous Collective, and in 2016 traveled to Standing Rock, where he joined indigenous water protectors from all over the world to observe and participate in demonstrations for human rights. There, he became involved with the International Indigenous Youth Council as it was founded at the demonstration.

He describes his work with the NAIC and IIYC, and even in dance, as “spreading what we know and what we’ve learned about our identity and our culture, and hoping that sparks something within others.” As part of the university’s Intellectual Entrepreneurship pre-graduate school internship program, Ramirez is working closely with a UT Austin graduate student on the pedagogy of the Aztec dance community — “how knowledge is passed intergenerationally and from place to place,” he explains.

Ramirez sees his education, dance, identity and leadership as “all connected, because I’m living them all,” he says. “I am always learning more about what I can do with the roots and the knowledge that have been passed down to me, and mixing that with dance, activism, and what I believe.”